Confusion Within the Church: Satan’s Work or God’s?

Last week, the National Catholic Reporter ran a story about the upcoming elections for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The author of the story paints a picture of the elections as presenting a choice between “Francis bishops” and bishops who might be seen as being more at odds with the pastoral inclinations and priorities of the current Pontiff. As an example of the latter, the article mentions Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., of Philadelphia, who publicly stated he was “very disturbed” by the debate over Church teachings on gay people and remarried Catholics at the 2014 Synod on the Family. In his opinion, the Synod sent a confusing message, and “confusion is of the devil.”

These are indeed confusing times for many, and many people share Archbishop Chaput’s frustration. Recent years have seen a major shift in public opinion (including the opinion of large numbers of Catholics) on the matter of same-sex marriage. Until recently, not only Catholic teaching but also the majority Catholic opinion was firmly against such unions. Now more than half of US Catholics favor same-sex marriage. Another divisive issue, admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, took center stage in last month’s Synod on the Family. Many Catholics were hoping that the Synod would produce a clear response to this question, but the resulting documents essentially left it an open issue. Meanwhile the fight over Obamacare-mandated contraception rages on in the US court system. These are topics of passionate concern for a great many Catholics, and at present it is anything but clear how the Church as a whole will respond going forward.

Some, like Chaput and Cardinal Raymond Burke, clearly favor policies that hold to traditional Church teaching and view the present debates around these issues as seeds of discord planted by Satan, “the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). There is no doubt that confusion can be an evil, destructive force, at least in some situations. When Peter misunderstood Jesus’ mission, Jesus strongly rebuked him, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me” (Mt 16:23). The intentions of Church leaders like Chaput and Burke would seem to be consistent with Jesus’ intentions to the extent that they are acting out of a desire to preserve the unity of the Church and reassure members of the faithful. (And only God and these individuals know the true intentions in their hearts.) Such intentions reflect the instincts of a pastor concerned for his flock.

However, Chaput, Burke, and all of us must also acknowledge that, at least in some situations, Jesus himself was the source of confusion. For example, biblical scholars tell us that Jesus told parables, those enigmatic and sometimes disturbing stories, with the express purpose of challenging what people thought they knew. At one point Jesus tells his apostles that he speaks in parables “in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand’” (Mk 4:12; cf. Mt 13:14; Lk 8:10). It is difficult to maintain the assertion that all confusion is from the devil in light of passages such as these.

But, granting that Jesus sometimes seemed intent on confusing his followers, we might wonder why. The Gospel of John, citing Isaiah, offers us a clue: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn and I would heal them” (Jn 12:40). From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus relentlessly pursued a mission of converting people for the reign of God. He sought to liberate people from the idols that enslaved them (wealth, honor, etc.) to love God with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind (Lk 10:27), that is, with the entirety of their being. This sort of conversion constitutes a radical change in how one thinks, acts, and loves, and a person undergoing a change of this magnitude is bound to experience some confusion. Indeed, that is exactly what we see in the Gospels. It may be that this is what we are seeing in the Church today.

Confusion is often a necessary precursor to openness. Experts in learner psychology explain that temporary confusion is a healthy part of the learning process and that teachers actually hinder learning when they resolve their students’ confusion too quickly. When it comes to the truths that matter most, no one can simply put them in our minds. We have to struggle with them and arrive at understanding on our own terms and in our own time. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we occasionally run into some confusion when following after Jesus, for to be his disciple means to be converted time and again.

In an age when so many have lost confidence in the Christian faith, Chaput’s aversion to confusion is understandable. The desire to preserve Christians’ faith is a noble one. However, the Archbishop and all of us need to ask ourselves if we are placing our faith in the right place. Are we putting our faith in “human tradition” (Mk 7:8) or in God? This is not to say that faith in God is necessarily in conflict with faith in institutions and doctrines. To the contrary, Jesus bestowed his teaching authority upon the apostles, the predecessors of today’s Church leaders (Mt 18:18; 28:20), and promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church community (Jn 14:26). God works in and through the Church.

Nevertheless, it is dangerous to identify God with the institutional Church, its leaders, or its doctrines. This is the error for which Jesus repeatedly criticized the scribes and the Pharisees. They scrupulously observed the Law, and yet, Jesus lamented their “hearts are far from me” (Mk 7:6; Mt 15:8). Jesus’ challenge is no less relevant today. We must constantly ask ourselves if we have become so fixated on the instruments of God’s grace that we fail to respond to the Holy Spirit when she beckons to us.

Occasional confusion is not at odds with faith. To hear the evangelists tell it, Jesus’ disciples were confused most of the time that they were with him, and yet it was upon these poor, confused souls that Jesus chose to build his Church. It would seem, then, that we who earnestly seek to follow where God leads should expect to be confused at least some of the time. Such confusion can be unsettling, but it need not lead to despair. Confused as they were, the disciples were able to remain faithful because they clung to Jesus and tried to love one another as best they could. Their rock was not an institution (the Church as we know it didn’t exist yet) or a set of doctrines (they hadn’t been articulated yet) but rather the God who had come into their midst.

We modern day disciples have the benefit of an institution and a body of teachings that help to guide our efforts to live faithful, loving lives. However, these aids to faith can also become stumbling blocks if we cling so tightly to them that we close ourselves off to God’s ongoing work in the world. In our search for certainty, we must always remember that the Truth is most reliably found, not in teachings expressed in human words, but in a Person who is always in our midst.